Category Archives: goals

Getting Things Done – Spacious Action in Action

Wherever we are in any given moment we can remind ourselves of our intention to be fully present and compassionate. It’s simple but not always easy to remember, but it is so rewarding that we can soon develop a habit of doing so.

But how does being present and compassionate get things done?

Meditation practice fosters within us a sense of generosity and creativity. Spacious action arises out of those skillful impulses in whatever form is the clearest expression of our natural talents. Do we have the patience and persistence to sit until we are ripe and ready for skillful action? Do we feel we have the time and the permission to do so? Probably not! In our culture we are encouraged to ‘go for the gusto,’ to be goal-oriented, to plan for the future, to dream big, to ‘not stop ‘til we get enough,’ to ‘go for the Gold,’ ‘be all that we can be,’ etc. etc. Where in all these prompts to perfection, all these indications that we are not enough as we are, would be find room for simply sitting? And we come back to that question of how would we get anything done?

Gandhi is quoted as saying, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”

How I wish I had heard that quote back in the early nineties when I went through an extended lapse from regular meditation practice because I felt I didn’t have the time! Thus destabilized from my foundation of awareness, I paid no heed to my body’s call for a respite, for a time of silence and sitting. Instead I kept my nose to the grindstone and honored every commitment I made to others, but did not take the time to honor a basic commitment to take care of myself. At that time there were no well-publicized local retreat centers that would provide me with the simple life of sitting that I clearly needed. So what did I do?

I got sick. Illness is the one long-accepted form of retreat in our culture. Get sick in the body or mind and we will be forced to rest. We will become so unskillful or disabled that others will insist that we stop what we are doing and go away and don’t come back until we are well enough to pick up our burden again. Maybe we end up in a mental ward, a cancer unit or a prison cell. And there, if life were fair, the healing would begin. But instead chances are we get caught up in yet another intense culture where we feel threatened and overwhelmed…unless we are able to recognize the opportunity to let go and simply be.

I was heartened to read recently that in an Alabama prison there is an ongoing meditation retreat program for inmates who choose to participate. I wasn’t surprised that it has been extremely successful and that the recidivism among the members of that incarcerated sangha is much lower than the rest of the prison population.

When I was diagnosed with CFIDS (chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome) I felt fortunate that my illness was not life-threatening. All I had to give up was a career with which I’d had a love/hate relationship, half our family income, and the ability to do more than one thing a day beyond feeding my family and cleaning our home. Suddenly my overwhelming array of choices was eliminated.

Imagine that! If you could only do only one thing a day, what would it be? It became so clear to me who and what nourished me and who and what drained me. That was the deciding factor for any social encounter, any outing or any activity. The foods, films and people that put me into a tailspin of weariness were off the list. Television and novels that had been my days-end vacation were off the list! How had I not noticed that all these things were draining me? How had I not noticed that my nice corner office at work had been abuzz with freeway noise that I couldn’t hear after a while. How much energy had it taken for me to provide an inner muffle for that sound?

This discovery of what nourished me and what drained me was the product of my return to meditation, the one thing I could do as much as I wanted during my illness. In fact, for nine months I experienced a physically-enforced personal retreat. Through meditation I touched that deep connected mindfulness that creates the possibility of skillful spacious action. Until then I paid little attention to the many decisions and choices I made during any given day. I did what I had to do to get things off my plate, to get past where I was and onto some more tolerable future place. No wonder I got sick!

Now, thanks to the widespread practice of meditation and the development and appreciation for emotional intelligence, we have greater access to and greater acceptance of the knowledge to recognize when we are on autopilot, when we are becoming unskillful. We also have the resources available in the form of meditation instruction and retreats that can provide us with the ability to stay present and compassionate. Yet many of us are still not giving ourselves permission to let go for even a half hour a day and give ourselves what we need.

In the state I had been in working up to my illness, I was so disconnected that I didn’t feel deserving of anything for myself. I also felt that it was not something I could ask for. At some level I hoped that someone would give it to me, but I didn’t speak up and let it be known that I needed it. When my doctor told me I needed to quit my job, I went on half-time. But it wasn’t until I used that freed up time to meditate and get in touch with the inner wisdom that each of us has access to that I got it that I needed a complete time out in order to heal.

So what is it that kept me from asking for what I needed? It was a sense of unworthiness. Imagine sitting at the dinner table, feeling you have no right to ask someone to pass the salt. When I began meditating, I recognized that I was an intrinsic part of the universe, deserving what every being deserves, no less, no more. With that awareness I could accept my seat at the table and if I needed something, I understood that if I couldn’t reach it, it was reasonable to ask whoever was closest to it to ‘please pass the salt.’

I could also begin to recognize others who also felt undeserving of a seat at the table and I began to see that the table is infinitely expansive and there is plenty of food for all, so part of being at the table was inviting everyone to take their seat, their rightful seat that for whatever reason they had vacated or hadn’t been told was theirs.

What does it mean to you when I talk about accepting your seat at the table? What does it mean to you when I say ‘Feel free to ask for what you need?’

When we talk about skillful action we also talk about unskillful action because it helps us see more clearly. In this imaginary table we have constructed, we might see that there are those who see the seating and the food as limited, who look like they are sitting at a poker table and accruing chips instead of at a dining table with plenty of food and delightful conversation.

We can look at our own actions at the table. Are we eating off someone else’s plate? Are we telling others what they should and shouldn’t eat? Or are we allowing each other the full reign of our own seat and table setting?

How are we relating to the plate in front of us? Is it full or empty? Is it enough? Is it too much of one kind of thing and not enough of another? If we are looking longingly at another person’s plate or wishing we were in another’s seat, we can return to our mindfulness and skillful inquiry to ask what is driving that desire to unseat someone else or take what they have when there is plenty at the table and we already have a seat?

What are we afraid of? It always comes back to that when we get to a place of scarcity and contraction.

On a silent retreat at Spirit Rock a while back I realized that ‘I have nothing to fear, nothing to prove, nothing to hide and something to give.’ It wasn’t the first time I had realized that, but somehow phrased in that way, it was something I could write down and pin to my bulletin board where I can see it every day. It still informs me, and sometimes surprises me.

Once we begin to see that, even though we still have habituated patterns of fear-based beliefs and behaviors, we can begin to rest in awareness. We can really appreciate what is in front of us, even when it isn’t all chocolate pudding all the time. We can learn to look around and see what needs doing and understand what it is we bring to the table, what we have to offer from our set of skills and gifts and interests. Through the practice of meditation there is a natural shift of focus to what we have to offer, what is upwelling inside us from our natural generosity of spirit without any sense of agenda or recompense, just a joyous love of life and gratitude for this experience, even though it is sometimes painful and challenging.

Since we are not monks or nuns, since we are not on retreat constantly, we have options and challenges. Our needs are not taken care of by others. But in some deeper sense, we are taken care of. For those who believe in God, there is the personified understanding of being children of God, held in a loving embrace. For those for whom this personification doesn’t resonate, there is the scientifically based understanding of the interconnectivity of life, that we are all stardust, one being, and that each of us, even those suffering and struggling with outrageous misfortune, are intrinsically valued.

Maybe we feel we are not valued by some specific other – a parent perhaps — against whom we may rail, feeling abandoned or brutalized. But if we continue to come back to our intention to be present and compassionate, we will shift from feeling dependent on the permission, admiration or love of others. They don’t own the table. They don’t have to pull out our chair. We begin to see we are already seated, already here, at the table of life, nourished by the wholeness of being, accessed at any moment through awareness of the present and a willingness to be compassionate to ourselves and others.

So this is the way we get things done. We accept our seat at the table and we maintain the clarity and compassion to enjoy the interactions with others around us, to pass the salt to whomever needs it, and to not be afraid to say, “Could you please pass those sweet potatoes? They look mighty tasty!”

The Problem with ‘Positive Thinking’

We have been talking for a while about the freedoms that arise naturally out of the simple daily practice of meditation: Freedom from struggle, freedom from fear, freedom from the fortress of defensiveness. But it could sound as if we are actively trying to get away from struggling, fear or defensiveness, instead of just noticing them as they arise in our experience and fall away. So I want to be sure we are clear that when we try to escape, when we try to push away, when we try to achieve freedom, or try to hold onto fleeting glimpses of freedom we may experience, then the freedom is gone.

This is frustrating, I know. It’s like some kind of fun house mirror set up, where when we go after what we see, it disappears! This is not how it should be, we say. Things should be clear cut and straight forward. And perhaps we know from personal experience that we can achieve things by setting goals, that that is in fact the way life is. I certainly have set goals and achieved them. The very house we are sitting in was imagined, found and purchased in just that way. And there’s nothing wrong with undertaking such a project, experiencing it fully. It can be exciting, invigorating and fun.

But where we get into trouble is when we expect achieving any goal to set us free, make us truly happy or change the way we experience life in any fundamental way. We are just pouring our way of being from one container into another. Maybe the new container is bigger, prettier, more comfortable, or better in some other way. And perhaps the ways in which it is better cause us conditional happiness, that may last a while or may not, depending on our basic temperament. But no house, job, geographical setting or personal relationship will alter to any degree our conditioned set of responses to whatever experience arises in our lives. Changing the conditions is like changing the wallpaper on our prison cell. It doesn’t really change anything! And when we achieve a goal and then discover that nothing has changed on the deep level that we crave, we can sink into despair. This despair is only amplified if we believe that plastering positive messages all over our cell will set us free, when really they just mask the truth of our situation.

We can pour ourselves from one container to another, but we need to notice if we are vesting the experience with powers it cannot deliver. Setting goals and achieving them can deliver some degree of physical comfort and material well being, and these are valid uses of it, but to rely on it habitually for all our needs, emotional and spiritual, is setting ourselves up for suffering. Once we have a modicum of material stability, what we really want beyond that is the kind of freedom or happiness that comes from a different source.

So yes, pour all you want from one container to the other. Pour yourself into that new dress or pair of shoes and dance around in front of the mirror. Enjoy your cute self! But understand that what we are talking about when we look at real freedom is dissolving the container itself. This a joy that can’t be purchased, that can’t be achieved through goal setting or positive thinking.

We are all aware that there is a whole huge industry of motivational speaking set up to promote these principles of positive thinking. It promotes dreaming big, getting what we want by setting our sights, taking aim and achieving our goals. Sometimes people assume that Buddhism is about positive thinking. It’s easy to make assumptions and lump all the various self-help streams of thought together. But Buddhism is most definitely not about positive thinking. Buddhism is quite specifically about facing the truth of things head on. Whatever it is. Not in a confrontational way, but in a way that never shies away from the tough stuff – the uncomfortable, scary thoughts and feelings that can leave gun-toting musclemen quaking in their boots.

When we face whatever arises in our experience head on, we are interested in the facts of the situation. We have no interest whatsoever in changing the facts. A ‘positive thinker’ may look at the situation and immediately spot the silver lining. That’s fine. It’s there too, but Buddhists don’t want to skip over anything in a rush to get to the happy bits. Neither do we want to dig around in the muck. And if we have a tendency to focus on the negative, we can benefit from challenging ourselves to ‘incline our mind’ (as the Buddha says) toward what is that in our current experience that is pleasant, since otherwise we might not notice it. We really are just opening to whatever is, noting pleasant and unpleasant alike, and staying curious.

Our method is not to rush to judgment, sum up the situation, say, ‘Well, that’s that,’ and move on. We stay present for the whole experience. We sit with it. We make room for all of it in our awareness. We notice the subtle complexities, the multiple layers, the threads that run through it, the light and the shadow, and the truth. And even when we perceive the truth of something, we don’t dismiss it, saying ‘case closed’ with a sense of satisfaction. Instead we continue to stay present with whatever is until it changes or leaves of its own volition. Then we stay present with whatever arises in that moment. In each moment we simply stay present with the rich unfolding of experience.

You may say that the positive thinker cuts to the chase, gets to the good stuff, catches the gold ring. No argument there. But it relies pretty heavily on the positive thinker’s ability to recognize ‘good stuff’, doesn’t it?

Positive thinking puts energy behind embracing an ideal vision of how we want to change ourselves and our world to conform to that vision. That’s not Buddhism. Buddhism sees ideal visions as too rigid, too narrow, too limited, even if that vision is world peace and harmony. Now if you know anything about Buddhism, you will say, but wait, what about all the metta – loving kindness you send out into the world, “May there be every good blessing,” “May all beings be well,” and all that?

Strange, isn’t it? It’s not necessarily that we don’t recognize that there is energy that can be directed. (Though Buddhists disagree among themselves about the existence of such energy, and belief in it doesn’t seem to be an absolute requirement. You can be ‘a secular Buddhist’ like teacher/author Stephen Batchelor.) The majority of Buddhists acknowledge the existence of a universal energy, but see the problem with directing the energy in a narrow selective way instead of generous universal well wishing for all life. It’s just way too limiting! It sets up a narrow trough of possibility. We do not send out phrases such as, “May my daughter do well on her test today, may the stock market rise, may I get that job.” We say “May the merits of our practice be for the benefit of all beings, may all beings be well, may all beings be happy.”
Buddhists value all of life, the great manifestation of life in all its myriad forms. Yet most Buddhists also sense that there is more than just this earthly human existence, that this existence is a gift in whatever form we receive it, that to be born into this life is a rare and wondrous experience to be savored, appreciated and then released when it is over. For this life that seems finite is just a phase we’re going through in the infinite dance of universal energy of which we are all an integral part. (And if you are aren’t comfortable with the idea of universal energy, you can still recognize that in nature, death is not the end of any life form’s existence as it cycles through and is transformed into more life.)

Because we value the experience of earthly life itself, we recognize that preconceived judgments about what makes a successful life are limited, erroneous. The positive thinking movement is often focused on becoming wealthy. Grasping at wealth is one of the habits of mind Buddhists notice when it arises in our experience, and we notice also how much suffering arises out of any assumption we may have that great wealth brings great happiness. (Did I just hear you say, Oh good, Buddhists like to be poor! More for us!?)

Stop and think about your own experience, whether the course of your pocketbook’s fullness or emptiness has matched your own sense of fullness or emptiness throughout your life. For most of us, the two have no correlation. Our happiness is not dependent on our bank account. Yet, even so, because it is so easy to go unconscious, we may still buy into the idea that adding extra zeros to our bottom line will make us happy. It’s an assumption that corporations enforce at every turn, because corporate workers are operating under the same delusion.

Positive thinking is considered a transformative power. No doubt it is. Yet focusing our energy on the power to change ourselves or our circumstances from what they are to what we believe to be better camouflages the truth. The truth is, as Jon KabatZinn so aptly coined, ‘Wherever you go, there you are.’

All the positive thinking in the world may change things but when we get to that changed place, we will still be us, still interacting with the world in the same way, still finding it unsatisfactory and in need of changing, because that is our habit of mind.

Buddhists instead prefer to sit with what is, noticing our habit of mind. As compassionately as possible, sitting with the causes and conditions of our lives, the flow of emotions, thoughts and sensations, and from that deep place of sitting performing actions that are loving and compassionate: that’s the Buddhist way.

Positive thinking gets in the way of the great unfolding of life. That is mostly because none of us really have sufficient imagination to set a goal to positively think into being anything that would be near so wondrous at what actually happens in our lives. The narrow focus of the goal keeps all other wondrous avenues through which we might stroll out of our view. We’re on a specific track, a specific wave length, and nothing else appears within our scope. With our eye on the prize, we miss a world of wonder for the sake of the end destination that we may not be able to enjoy when we reach it because we are out of the habit of enjoying what is.

We are limited by our view of ourselves, who we are in the world. We want something: happiness, freedom, love, and we set our sights on it. A.H. Almaas, the (non-Buddhist, but respected by Buddhist teachers) Diamond Approach™ founder, gave a wonderful analogy. Think about the larva that transforms into a butterfly. How could such a creature ever conceive of becoming a butterfly? That would be absurd to imagine anything so completely different! Maybe if it were into imagining the future, into goal setting, it would imagine being a bigger larva, a happier larva. But a beautiful flying creature? How absurd!

Just like that larva, we are inherently limited in our ability to imagine the transformation possible within ourselves. And the striving, goal-setting mind set is really an encumbrance. If we don’t allow our lives to unfold naturally, giving whatever arises our full attention, then we are likely to be clinging to the chrysalis that held so much promise, not realizing that if we let go, we could fly.

Eightfold Path: Right Intention

Once we have an understanding of Right View, we can explore Right Intention, the second aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path. Right View, as I said before, can be experienced as a subtle yet life-changing shift within ourselves to a deeper more spacious vantage point where we sense (or are at least open to the possibility of) connection, wholeness, integrity.

These first two aspects of the Eightfold Path go hand in hand, each dependent on the other. Without Right View, there is no possibility of Right Intention, for our intentions are rooted in our view of the world. If our view of the world is rooted in fear, we go into lockdown mode. We create protective barriers and see ourselves as totally separate. Separate from other people, separate from nature, separate from the world. From this view, our intention is automatically set on defending the fortress we have created to keep ourselves ‘safely’ separate from life.

Conversely, Right View without Right Intention could create a practice and a life that is more spacey than spacious. Right Intention adds a level of precision, attention, mindfulness and active engagement. Right Intention makes it possible to stay in touch with Right View. It keeps us anchored to a sense of wise understanding.

Right View and Right Intention together set the stage for the rest of the Eightfold Path. It may be useful to think of Right View as the foundation and Right Intention as the hook that anchors us to the foundation. Once they are in place, the other aspects of the Eightfold Path arise in natural alignment.

Another way to think of it is with a musical analogy: Your life is the instrument you have been given. Right View lets you see that your instrument is part of a great orchestra, and you have the opportunity to co-create the symphony of life. Right Intention tunes your instrument. Then all the others – Right Speech, Right Action, etc. — are attuned and resonant, melodic life expressions rising from a deep wisdom. Without the understanding of Right View, there is no symphony. Without tuning of Right Intention, the resulting music is discordant.

Right Intention
Right Intention for our purposes as meditators and Buddhist practitioners is three-fold: First, to develop a regular practice of meditation. First things first, we need to get ourselves to the cushion! Second, to bring our awareness to the present moment, both in our meditation and in our lives. And third, to practice kindness to ourselves and others.

Just adopting these three intentions in our lives can make a remarkable difference. You can see how in the practice of meditation, bringing in Right Intention to bring us back again and again to the breath, to bring our awareness back to sensation and anchoring us in the present moment is a wonderful gift. And when we bring Right Intention into our daily life, we find ourselves being kinder in our interactions and more present for the rich experience of living.

But to fully embrace the idea of Right Intention, it may be helpful to explore our understanding of the word ‘intention’. In English this word has an inherent weakness about it. Think of the expression, “I’m sure he had the best of intentions, but…” And then there is the excuse, “I intended to do it, but other things got in the way.” And of course we all know that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

So is there no better word than ‘intention’ we could use? Resolve has more power but resolutions are better known for being ‘broken’ than ‘kept.’ So we are inclined to think of the word ‘goal’ as the more powerful serious option. Goal setting is a skill that go-getters have and that’s why they achieve things that others don’t. This is our cultural truth. So why are we playing around with this wishy washy word ‘intention’?

Here’s why: As goal-setters we achieve our goal only to have to set another. Our lives are all about the goal, as we’re playing a game of football or hockey. ‘Keep your eye on the prize.” we are told. But with our eyes locked on the goal, we miss the present moment. We see this moment only to the degree that it serves or hampers us in our pursuit of some future moment that will be perfect in every way. Thus we are not present for the rich experience of life fully lived. We are not present for our loved ones when they talk to us. We are not present to notice the multi-layered complexity and beauty of each moment as it reveals itself. No, we are holding out for that goal of a perfect moment when we will have what we so desperately want. But when we get to that perfect moment we have only developed the habit of looking forward and we have no skills at being present, so we miss it! That perfect moment we longed for! Poof! Gone! As unappreciated as all the other moments that preceded it. So what’s the point?

Setting an intention is very different. Here’s an example from my own life:
Will and I study Spanish every day together. We have set the intention of sitting down after breakfast together to study verbs and read to each other from Spanish children’s books. The intention is fulfilled each morning in each moment of our time together, as we laugh and stumble through the challenge of learning a foreign language, and in the process enjoying each other’s company.

But sometimes we can forget to just stay with the intention, and get caught up in a goal of becoming fluent in Spanish. When we do that we have a very different experience. We waste our time beating ourselves up, being frustrated that our brains can’t remember vocabulary, and feeling like we should just give up. How is this in any way useful? This eye on the goal is really sabotaging the likelihood of achieving it! When we stay with our intention, lo and behold, we are increasingly more fluent with each passing month.

So should we not set goals at all? What a radical notion! It might be interesting to take a holiday from our goals just to see how that change affects our lives. We might find that we are more available for opportunties and life experiences that we could not have even imagined from the limited view of our goal setting.

If throwing out a goal is too radical then, at the very least, it’s important to question it to be sure it is aligned with our deepest values, that it’s not just an expression of our grasping or comparing mind, not a way to prove to the world how great we are. This only builds our fortress walls higher. Goals rooted in fear can only create further suffering.

But upon close examination, even fear-based goals might have a seed of love in them. Sometimes with kind attention we can reframe a goal so it is more authentic. The goal of “I want to be a famous movie star” (i.e. I want people to admire me, I want to project an image, I want to have power and control to protect myself from harm, I want to prove to so and so who dissed me that I’m great, etc.) might on closer inspection contain within it a more loving and authentic desire. Perhaps it is “I want to explore life through a variety of roles and share my expression of my explorations with others.”

You can see how that switches from a distant goal that has no depth or substance into a meaningful moment to moment way to be in the world that arises organically from our own natural skills and unique gifts. This reframed goal has more of the quality of an intention. An intention leans toward connection and is acted upon in every moment. A goal leans toward separation, individuation, and is distant, pulling us out of the moment.

Now we can’t talk about Right Intention without acknowledging that we already have all sorts of unspoken and unexamined intentions in our lives, whether we are aware of them or not. We can get a clue as to our intentions by looking at our behavior – the things we say and do, how we interact with others, how we lead our lives. An unskillful intention can be destructive, causing suffering all around. An unskillful intention is based in fear and is an attempt to protect ourselves from a perceived threat.

Seeing these intentions as bad and setting the intention to get rid of them is simply more fear-based activity that will not produce the desired result. The more skillful way is to bring compassionate attention to them and to provide a safe spacious mind for them to reveal themselves. It’s important for us to remember that inside every unskillful intention is a hurt but loving heart, trying its best to protect us from perceived threats.

Through regular meditative practice and bringing our awareness into the present moment we begin to see these unskillful intentions more clearly. Eventually, with kind attention, we can see we don’t need to protect our identity or transform ourselves into some superhuman to secure respect or love. We can let go of these unskillful intentions as the veils of illusion fall away.

If we have had trauma in our lives that makes self-exploration difficult, it may be useful to seek help with a therapist in examining the fear and the unskillful intentions and behavior. But otherwise, a regular sitting practice, a willingness to notice our thoughts and question their validity, and a great deal of patience to let this lifetime process unfold as it will, is all we need to enjoy the ongoing fruits of practice.

As we practice Right Intention – developing a regular practice of meditation, bringing our awareness back to the present moment, and practicing kindness to ourselves and others — we begin to see its quiet power, and as our understanding increases, the meaning of the word ‘intention’ becomes not just powerful but meaningful, and richly satisfying.